Traffic deaths down in Tri-State

February 17, 1997


Staff Writer

Police told Joshua D. Knott, 19, that his seat belt and his four-wheel drive truck saved his life.

Knott, of Greencastle, Pa., was driving home from a friend's house west of Hagerstown a few days before Christmas when a car with no headlights hit his truck head on, said his mother, Vonnie Knott.

The driver of the car, Alben Lewis Deneen, 40, of Warfordsburg, Pa., was killed.

Joshua Knott had only minor injuries, he was told, because his seat belt kept him from hitting the windshield and his full-size truck took the brunt of the impact.

"We tell my son that he has a very good guardian angel," his mother, Vonnie, said.

Deneen was one of seven people killed on Tri-State area roads around the 1996 Christmas holiday.

Despite the series of fatal accidents, 1996 was not a particularly unsafe year on area highways, officials said.


Last year, 97 people died in accidents in the seven-county Tri-State area, state officials said. That dropped from 120 deaths in 1994.

"It seems like when they happen, they happen in numbers," Sgt. Rob Blair of the Martinsburg detachment of the West Virginia State Police said.

In Maryland, traffic deaths hit a 28-year low last year.

Last winter's storms kept people off the highways, perhaps playing a role in the decline in traffic fatalities, said Elizabeth A. Baker, chief of the traffic safety division for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Maryland officials also cited a police campaign against aggressive drivers, highway safety programs and public education efforts for the drop.

Frederick County, Md., had a record year, logging its lowest number of traffic deaths since 1983.

But Washington County was not as fortunate.

Traffic fatalities went up, from 13 to 18, although Washington County was still below its 16-year average of 20 deaths a year.

"Fatal accidents are pretty tough to control because a lot of times it's driver error," said Lt. Bruce Tanner of the Hagerstown barracks of Maryland State Police.

In many Tri-State area counties, the number of fatal accidents has fluctuated dramatically in the last three years.

Jefferson County, W.Va., for example, only had one traffic death in 1995, while there were 14 in 1994 and seven in 1996.

"I really don't have any explanation for it," said Robin Turley, who analyzes fatal accidents for the West Virginia State Police.

In Berkeley County, W.Va., the number of traffic deaths increased in 1996 over the two previous years.

"I think you can probably attribute that to the number of people in the area. I don't think the roads have kept up with the population," said West Virginia's Blair.

There are more drivers on a road system that basically hasn't been upgraded, resulting in congestion, which in turn increases the chance for accidents.

Also, Blair said he has seen more aggressive drivers on the road lately. Driving his personal car, Blair has seen people passing in no-passing zones and speeding to get somewhere faster.

In Franklin County, Pa., highway deaths were down in 1996, with 19 fatalities, compared to 24 in 1995, said Greg Penny, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

"It would be a lot less if we could get people to use their seat belts," said Franklin County Coroner Kenneth L. Peiffer Jr.

About 64 percent of the 215 people who have died on Franklin County roads since 1988 were not wearing their seat belts, he said.

Seat belts in some cases have saved people whose cars were mangled beyond recognition.

Even if a car is horribly crushed, there is a "room to live" space of a few inches around a person's body. If that area's intact, there is a chance to survive, Peiffer said.

Some of those who go beltless believe they could prevent themselves from going through a windshield in their vehicles were to crash, Peiffer said.

"It's a physical impossibility to hold yourself in an accident," he said.

Police told Joshua Knott that in his accident, the impact was similar to that of hitting a brick wall at 90 mph.

The accident has made Knott a more cautious driver, he said.

"I'm a little bit more touchy on the brake. Paranoid, I guess," he said.

Although air bags have been blamed for the deaths of a handful of children and small people around the country, Peiffer said that hasn't been a problem locally.

In 1996, most of the fatal accidents were caused by people driving on the wrong side of the road, speeding or driving under the influence, Penny said.

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